Donald Trump’s language as president and before that as presidential hopeful has amplified and normalized the toxic rhetorical environment that’s inspired people like 21-year-old shooting suspect Patrick Crusius to murderously act.
Just hours before the El Paso shooting, Trump had retweeted (again) an infamous U.K. anti-immigrant bigot named Katie Hopkins, who has written that migrants heading to Europe were “cockroaches” and instead of sending rescue boats, “I’d use gunships” to stop them.
As El Paso native and 2020 Democratic candidate Beto O’Rourke put it Sunday morning, Trump is a “racist” and a “white nationalist” who created an environment of “open racism” by “calling Mexican immigrants rapists and criminals, warning of an ‘invasion’ at our border” and more.” That environment, O’Rourke said, “encourages the kind of violence we’re seeing, including in my home town of El Paso yesterday.”
Trump infamously began his presidential campaign by spewing the lie that Mexico was sending rapists to the U.S., and during the campaign he retweeted numerous white supremacists, including one with the Twitter name “White Genocide.” He has long demonized immigrants as “invaders,” as when he said in March, “People hate the word invasion, but that’s what it is.” His even more recent push to “send them back” was widely cheered by white supremacists.
In his apparent manifesto, the El Paso terrorist insists that his hatred of immigrants preceded Trump and complains the media will nonetheless “blame Trump’s rhetoric”—in effect conceding that he sees his genocidal views as lining up with those of the American president. The terrorist also wrote of the threat of an “invasion” by Hispanic immigrants and listed interracial relations among his reasons to “send them back.”
Last year, three white supremacists in Kansas were convicted of a plot to kill Somali Muslim immigrants, with one quoting Trump’s debunked tale about Gen. John Pershing dipping bullets in pig’s blood before shooting Muslim insurgents a century ago. The lawyer for Cesar Sayoc, who last year mailed bombs to media outlets and others Trump had targeted, has blamed Trump (and Fox News) for radicalizing his client, writing that Sayoc was lost in a world of struggles but, “In this darkness, Mr. Sayoc found light in Donald J. Trump.” The grim list goes on.
Trump didn’t direct these people’s actions, or necessarily want them, but he has helped create the climate in which they are thriving.
In 2018, one count found that right-wing extremists were responsible for 50 deaths on U.S. soil, the highest number since Timothy McVeigh’s attack on the Oklahoma City federal building in 1995. Yet Trump still refuses to use the words “white supremacist terrorism.” This is the same Trump who demanded that we use all the term “radical Islamic terrorism.”
Days after the December 2015 San Bernardino terrorist attack by a Muslim husband and wife that killed 14 people, then-candidate Trump called for a “total and complete shutdown” of Muslims entering America. And as president in 2017, when two Muslim immigrants inspired by ISIS committed acts of terror, Trump didn’t even wait for the facts to tweet that he had ordered “Homeland Security to step up” his “extreme vetting program,” and a day later he announced his intention to end the Diversity Visa Program.
That same year, after a neo-Nazi murdered Heather Heyer and injured many more, Trump didn’t say the words “white supremacist terror,” let alone offer policies for fighting it but infamously declared that there were “fine people” on both sides. After the apparent white supremacist terror attack Saturday that took 20 lives, the only policy change Trump called for was lowering flags to half-staff.
A president’s biggest impact is in tone. A president can inspire good, bad, or ugly. In this case, Trump has set a grotesquely ugly tone that has brought him accolades from racists like David Duke for his extreme rhetoric and retweets of white supremacists. The longer that Trump and his Republican Party refuse to call white supremacist terror by its name and to commit the governmental resources needed to address it, the more Americans will die at the hands of this sick ideology.
Tragically, it appears that Trump is content to let that happen, since addressing the threat of violent white men clearly would not play with his dwindling base.